Sunday, December 9, 2012

Dr. Mario (NES)


 
Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun to play (even casually), high replay value, decent graphics.
Cons: Sound isn't so great.

Dr. Mario is a classic puzzle game developed by Nintendo for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console in 1990. It has since been ported to a multitude of other Nintendo consoles and hand-held devices, where it continues to do quite well. Mario apparently moonlights as a doctor when he's not snaking drains or fighting Bowser, and that's pretty much all there is to the game's premise.
 
The main screen of the game takes the form of a clear pill bottle, and the gameplay takes place inside this bottle. Inside you will find the play area which contains little viruses that can be either red, blue or yellow. Though there are no grid lines, you become immediately aware that the area is on a grid, and each virus takes up one block. Mario stands on the side of the screen holding different pills that are made of two different halves, each of which is either red, blue, or yellow as well. He tosses them into the pill bottle one at a time, and it's up to you to position the pill so that it lands on a virus.
 
Now the puzzle portion of the game stems from the fact that you can only destroy a virus and eliminate it from the play area by forming a horizontal or vertical line with the virus and three pill capsule halves. After you clear the play area, you continue on to the next level, and since each level contains more viruses and the pill capsules drop faster it can get pretty intense and challenging. This game is very similar to Tetris in that regard, as even though the two games are vastly different the overriding gameplay is still the same: manipulate the pieces to form lines and progress.
 
There is an "ending" after you finish level 20, where you get to view a short cut scene, but after it's over the game continues on indefinitely, until eventually there are so many viruses stacked up that it's impossible to proceed.
 
The graphics look pretty nice for a NES game, really polished and colorful. Still, it's a simple game that mostly consists of simple sprites on a single screen, so the bar is set pretty low to begin with. Audio wasn't as good, having only a couple of non-intrusive sound effects here and there and sadly only two background music tracks to chose from.
 
The sprite of Dr. Mario himself (tossing the pills into the bottle) is actually fairly convincing and pretty detailed, and in addition to that you also get sprites for each of the three colored viruses. They appear on the left side of the screen under a magnifying glass sprite to laugh at you and make faces at you as long as there are any viruses left of the matching color in the play area. When you clear the last blue virus for example, the blue sprite guy will fall over and then disappear. It's nothing special, but it's still a nice touch to add to a game that could have otherwise been very bland.
 
There is also a 2 player mode for Dr. Mario, which has one player on each side of the screen playing head-to-head. Completing lines to clear viruses will cause random pill capsule halves to drop randomly onto the other player's play area, complicating their game greatly, but is otherwise the same as the single player mode. I actually enjoy playing the 2 player mode, and have logged countless hours playing against my cousin when I was younger.
 
Controls are obviously simple but are quite responsive, making this an easy game to get into. These days Dr. Mario can be found online for about $3, which is nothing. It's a really fun game, even more so playing against a friend, and it costs very little; there's really no reason this shouldn't be in your collection. Dr. Mario is an easy recommendation for NES game collectors, fans of casual puzzle games, and especially fans of Tetris.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Space Invaders (SNES)




Rating: 3 out of 5
Pros: Simple gameplay that's true to the original arcade version
Cons: Poor graphics and sound for being released so late in the life of the SNES

Space Invaders is one of the most iconic games in history, and is a game nearly everyone should recognize from the title alone. This arcade classic from Taito was ported to many home consoles, with the Atari 2600 version being the mostly widely known and most played of these. This review will focus only on the version released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) in 1997. Normally we could expect some great graphics and sound considering the game was released rather late in the life of the console, but that's not really the case with Space Invaders.

Space invaders is a simple game that takes place on a single screen. You control some type of little cannon at the bottom of the screen; you can move left and right with the directional pad, and fire a single projectile straight up with the B button. Once you fire, you can't fire again until the previous projectile hits something or goes off the top of the screen. That's all there is to it, so the game is simple enough for anyone to pick up and play.

Enemies consist of blocky pixel aliens, who in their infinite intelligence form up into 11 columns of 5 aliens each, and slowly zigzag their way from one side of the screen to the other while slowly moving down toward you. Some of them occasionally drop projectiles straight down in an attempt to destroy you, but you can either move out of the way or take cover behind one of the four randomly blocky barriers spaced across the screen between you and the enemies. These barriers take damage as they are hit (by either you or the enemy) and eventually get full of holes and destroyed, but they're nice for cover in a pinch. Sometimes it's useful to sit under one and fire straight up through it to give yourself a narrow little canal to fire at the aliens through, as they are much wider than their projectiles so you can often kill a bunch before one gets lined up just right to return fire through the little opening.

As you kill more and more aliens they start moving faster and faster, and when you're down to just one left that little bugger is zipping around so fast that he's hard to hit. The very simple background music gets faster as the enemies get faster and closer to the bottom as well, which adds a little frenzy and sense of urgency to the gameplay. Occasionally a little flying saucer will fly across the top of the screen as well, and if you can shoot it down you get some bonus points. That's really all there is to the game; if you kill all of the aliens you move on and do it again, though as you progress it gets harder and harder (aliens get faster, start lower on the screen, etc).

There are four different versions of the graphics, though they are largely identical. One is a standard black & white mode, and similarly there's a black & white mode with "cellophane" which is really just a couple of horizontal colored bars across the otherwise black & white screen. There's a color mode, but everything is just made up of single bright colors and it's honestly pretty ugly. I guess the best looking graphics mode would be the upright cabinet mode -- it uses a simple background image and semi-transparent white graphics. It's still nothing spectacular, but at least it looks better than any of the other three graphic modes. Sound effects are minimal and sparse, and they sound like they were taken right out of the 1970's arcade cabinet.

The best feature of this game is the versus mode where you can play split-screen against another player. Each player can choose how many lives to start out with and what difficulty to play on, and then they are presented with 20 aliens and 1 protection barrier. Most of the aliens are white, but there are a couple of different colored ones -- destroying the colored ones takes a line of aliens away from you and adds them to your opponent. Hitting the flying saucer that flies across the top occasionally actually switches all of the aliens, so if you're lucky you can go from the verge of defeat to certain victory instantly.

There's a small city at night time as background on each side, and whoever wins gets a little sunrise animation that brings daylight. The loser gets a red screen with a smoldering crater in the middle. While Space Invaders doesn't offer a ton of replay value these days, the SNES cartridge can be found for just a few dollars online making it an inexpensive addition to any SNES game collection. It's worth breaking out to play once in a while, and the versus mode can be fun with a friend for a few minutes. Overall I would give it 3 out of 5 stars and recommend it to anyone who enjoys classic games.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Age of Empires II: The Conquerors Expansion (PC)

 
Rating: 5 out of 5
Pros: Ship formations, farm queues, smarter villagers. New units and civilizations are always a plus
Cons: None. The Conquerors does nothing but add to the gameplay in Age of Kings

Age of Empires II: The Conquerors is the expansion pack created for Age of Empires II: Age of Kings. If you're unfamiliar with the game, skim over that review first as this one is just about the new features this expansion pack brings to the table. It brings new maps to play on, new civilizations to try out, new units to play with and new technologies to research, among other things. It's not that expensive these days, and in fact you can usually find Age of Empires with the Rise of Rome expansion along with Age of Empires II and The Conquerors expansion all bundled together for under $10. It's a little more expensive to purchase it separately, so I recommend picking up some type of bundle these days.
 
One of the first things you may notice when starting up The Conquerors is the fact that there are new civilizations to choose from. These consist of the Aztecs, Huns, Koreans, Mayans and Spanish. Like the civilizations in the regular game, each one has unique unit(s) available to it. One of my least favorites of these unique units is the Huns' Tarkhan unit; it's a cavalry unit who is good against buildings. I prefer to just stick with my siege weapons for that purpose and the unique unit isn't all that beneficial to me. The Spanish Missionary is a good unit though, as it's more or less a mounted monk. A monk who can travel fast to convert enemies is never a bad thing in my opinion... unless it belongs to an enemy.
 
On the other hand, I really like playing the Huns despite my dislike of their unique unit. Mostly this is because the Huns don't have to build houses to support their population. This makes it easier and faster to churn out tons of villagers at the start of the game, keep setting them to collect food and churning out even more villagers until you're at the population limit for the game. Then you take them all and collect massive amounts of resources for a little while and then send them off to find an enemy and die so that you can free up that population to create an army with your new supply of resources. It's not a huge advantage because houses are cheap enough and quick enough to build, but every little bit helps. It's especially effective if you're planning an early rush against one person, because you can get a much bigger and more advanced army sent over there in the same amount of time and completely decimate them instead of just weakening them severely.
 
Another thing you may notice right away is the fact that there are three new game modes: Defend the Wonder, King of the Hill and Wonder Race. Wonder Race isn't really my cup of tea, but the other two I liked (though I still usually play either Regicide or random conquest). There are also four additional campaigns: Attila the Hun, Montezuma, El Cid, and The Conquerors. The Conquerors is really a series of separate maps that don't really go together, but it's fun all the same. There are also eight new maps, like the Nomad map where players start spread out and with no town center, or Mongolia where there are a ton of cliffs that make it annoying to move around. There are also maps based on real-world locations such as France, Britain, Texas or the Sea of Japan.
 
Some other noteworthy new features are the fact that you can now sail your ships in formations. In the original game you could do this with ground troops, but ships were still unwieldy. If you create a resource depot such as a mining camp, any villagers building it will automatically start collecting nearby resources. Previously they would just stand beside it idle when they were done; now you can send em building somewhere across the map and ignore them because they'll automatically get right to work.
 
There are also new unique technologies to each civilization. These mostly improve one certain type of unit by giving them a bonus like extra range, damage or health. The Goths have a technology that allows you to make units at the barracks quicker, which is handy because they already have a unique bonus of quicker training there as well and the two stack together making for some really fast infantry in a pinch. There are also a few new units in general that are usable by most civilizations; most notably an upgraded pikeman and a new really fast infantry unit that's hard for enemy monks to convert.
 
You can also queue up new farms at the mill so that they're built automatically when a farm is exhausted, which I really like because it's so annoying to try and keep up with them all if you rely heavily on farming for your food income. You can also stick troops inside battering rams now to make them stronger. Graphics and sound for this expansion pack aren't any different than for the regular game that I noticed, except for the new units which are still of the same small but detailed quality and look nice. They also did add in some winter and tropical tile sets which look just as good as the originals.

System requirements are identical to the Age of Kings (Pentium 166MHz processor and 32MB of RAM), except that this expansion pack requires an additional 100MB of hard drive space.
 
Overall I like having more civilizations and more units to choose from, and I really like some of the improvements like villagers auto-tasking after building, ship formations and farm queues. If you have Age of Kings you really should get this expansion pack as well since it adds a lot to the game. If you don't have Age of Kings, get it... and then get this expansion pack. Like I mentioned earlier it's really cheap these days and it's a terrific RTS experience.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Age of Empires II: Age of Kings (PC)


Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: A good RTS that's offers a lot of options and high replay value
Cons: A bit dated

Age of Empires II: Age of Kings is a real-time strategy (RTS) game developed by Ensemble Studios and published by Microsoft in 1999. In addition to the standard Windows PC release, it was also made available for Mac computers as well as the PlayStation 2. Following on the heels of the original Age of Empires game, Age of Kings brings the same wonderful gameplay but adds some much-needed new features like group formations and a button to locate idle villagers.
 
Like its predecessor (and most RTS games), Age of Kings is a game focused on gathering resources, churning out a military and defeating your enemies. This takes place over the course of four ages of the world, starting with the Dark Age, graduating the Feudal Age, then the Castle Age and eventually the Imperial Age. You only have a few buildings and units available at the start of the game and more are unlocked as you progress; most of these will only be unlocked during certain ages. For example, building a Siege Workshop to crank out battering rams is impossible until you've reached the Castle Age.
 
As you may infer from the title, this is a game of kings. You'll find peasant villagers, knights, boats, archers and horses; but no laser rifles or air support. You'll find barracks and archery ranges, castles and marketplaces. Resources you collect are food, wood, stone and gold, and these are the base upon which everything is created. Stone and gold can be gathered from mines spread around the map, wood can be collected by chopping down any trees on the map, and food can be gathered from farms, berry bushes, fishing, hunting animals, etc.
 
You have 13 different civilizations to choose from; these include the Britons, Byzantines, Celts, Chinese, Franks, Goths, Japanese, Mongols, Persians, Saracens, Teutons, Turks and Vikings. Each civilization has between three and five bonuses specific to them. Some are pretty useless like one of the Goth's bonuses is that villagers have +5 attack versus wild boars. That's a terrible bonus that nobody would ever care about.
 
My favorite civilization would have to be the Britons, because one of their bonuses gives foot archers +1 range in the castle age and another +1 range when you hit the imperial age. Archers who can shoot 2 squares further than your enemy's archers is a giant win for me because I always use a lot of archers.
 
Each civilization has another bonus... they can each make a unit unique to them at their castle when they build it in the Castle Age. Some are powerful, like the Persians' War Elephant while others aren't as strong but can be situationally useful like the Celts' Woad Raider. Personally I like the Britons' Longbowman because when fully upgraded it has the best range in the game and can take down towers from just out of range. If I'm playing on maps with a lot of water though, the Viking Longboat is unparalleled.
 
Speaking of maps, there are 13 different map types that you can choose from for a game. Maps are randomly generated, but the topography changes based on the type you select. Want a lot of water? Choose Coastal, Rivers or Islands as your map type. Want a land map only? Highlands and Black Forest sound like a promising choices. Experiment, or if you're not fussy just choose Random and let the computer decide for you.
 
Multiplayer matches are especially fun in Age of Kings, and up to 8 players can play at the same time. There are many options you can set for multiplayer games such as the map size, what technologies are available, population limit, starting age, etc. You can play with a modem or serial connection which are hardly used these days, or you can play with a standard TCP/IP connection. You'll need to do some port forwarding on your router to use this mode with people over the internet, but it works great out-of-the-box for LAN play. I play with one or more of my brothers once in a while on the different computers in the house.
 
The graphics are nice, and a big improvement over the original Age of Empires. They're not spectacular and they're still just two-dimensional, but everything is more detailed and looks cleaner. Units are generally small on the screen but easy to distinguish from each other; you can almost always tell at a glance which unit is which. Colors are a little messed up in Windows 7 though, with pink speckles covering a lot of the land. It doesn't make it unplayable, but it's sure annoying to look at.

Sound effects are decent. When you click on a villager you get the standard garbled speech that sounds like words but really isn't like would expect in The Sims. A villager chopping trees makes a sound like an axe into wood, etc. Battle sounds are sword clangs, galloping hooves and cannons and generally sound good. Background music is also decent, but there's not all that much of it. Most of it is just ambient noise, but it works well for the game.

System requirements are low since this game is a number of years old now; a 166MHz processor with 32MB of RAM and 200MB of hard drive space will suffice. It still works fine in Windows XP, and also in Windows 7 except for the aforementioned graphic distortion that I experience. I wish it would support a higher resolution, but 1024x768 is as high as it goes so that will have to suffice.

Overall a great game, and I highly recommend it. Tremendous replay value (I still play it often despite its age), and you can usually find it in the bargain bin. The Age of Empires + Age of Kings set is usually in the bargain bin even for under $10, so there's no reason to pass it up if you like RTS games.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Torchlight (PC)


Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun, polished loot-fest with a free editor and mod tools
Cons: A little repetitive, lacking end-game itemization, no multiplayer of any kind

With the release of Torchlight II imminent I figured it was a good a time as any to get out my review of the original Torchlight. I've been playing Torchlight off and on since the day it was released, and while it's a terrific game the lack of any type of multiplayer support kills it a bit for me; it's just one of those games that feels like it needs it. Well, they remedied that problem with Torchlight II which will come with drop-in/drop-out multiplayer support over the LAN and internet both. Epic win.
 
Torchlight was developed by Runic Games, which is a small team of people with some pretty noteworthy games under their belts such as Diablo, Fate and Mythos. I love the fact that they're a pretty small company, as you can actually talk to many of them on the forums at their website. They're usually good about keeping users informed about how things are going, and you never see this type of interaction with large companies.
 
As for the game, Torchlight is a single-player ARPG (action role-playing game). It was released through Steam and a couple of other digital distributors, as well as in a retail boxed version released by Encore a few months later. At the time of this writing you can pick it up for $14.99 on Steam, which is pretty good and well worth it. Right now however, you can download Torchlight free through Steam if you pre-order a copy of Torchlight II. I imagine this will end when Torchlight II is released, but you never know.
 
So there's this special ore known as "Ember" that has the power to enchant or corrupt. The mining town of Torchlight is at the top of the Ember mine, and adventurers go down in search of its power. When you arrive in Torchlight, you are recruited by a mage named Syl to go down in search of her master -- an alchemist named Alric -- whom you discover has been corrupted by the mysterious Ember and is now evil. That's really all there is to the story and the game; you just steadily travel further down killing everything in your way and collecting loot.
 
The main problem I have is the fact that everything is underground. Sure there's some variety here; you'll get mine tile sets for a few levels, islands in the dark floating around connected by wooden bridges, ancient ruins, castles in the lava... but it's all underground. The only open world area is the town, which is rather small and you are unable to leave it except into the mine. The world is like a giant vertical mineshaft connected by glowing portals you travel between to go up or down. Some of the levels may sprawl pretty far horizontally, but when you reach the end you're still going nowhere but down further.
 
Also, each level is randomly generated to an extent. Each different tile set has a number of "chunks" of the map, and these are randomly assembled to form the level. This is nice because it will be different the next time you play through, but the tile set will still be the same so it's not quite as impressive as it could have been. Still, I really like it and it does help. You may get some slightly different enemies, different items, treasure and secret rooms as well. Every few levels there is a "waypoint" portal that allows you to travel to any other waypoints you have activated, and this is certainly helpful to get back to town at least.
 
There are three different character classes you can play with; the Destroyer, the Vanquisher and the Alchemist. The Destroyer can only be a male character and acts as the melee/tank class of the game, getting up in the enemy's face and destroying him. The Vanquisher can only be a female character and is the archer type of class, mostly using different guns and bows to attack the enemy from a distance. The alchemist is a male character who relies on staves, wands and magic spells to get through the game. These are just the main roles for each class; you can play differently, like using a melee Alchemist or a magic using Vanquisher if that's what you want.
 
Any of the characters can equip just about anything since items require stat points and levels to use. However, pumping a pile of magic points into your Destroyer to equip a wand isn't going to be all that effective most of the time because his skills revolve around melee damage. The freedom to do this can make for some interesting character builds though, and they're occasionally fun to experiment with. Character stats consist of strength, dexterity, magic and defense. In addition, you have poison, fire, electrical and ice resistances which can be of immense help later in the game.
 
There are other stats that you can't directly view, which is another small negative. Things like 2% magic find, 15 knockback or 10% pet and minion speed you can only figure out by adding up how much is on each piece of equipment. The character screen could have used a little more fleshing out and polish to make all of these stats and bonuses easily visible.
 
Your character can equip a helmet, shoulders, armor, boots, gloves, belt, two rings, an amulet and a weapon (or two, or a weapon shield). There are tons of different pieces of equipment in the game, and that's where half of the fun comes in since this is a loot-whoring ARPG. Items come in different qualities, with different stats, sockets to place gems in to make them even stronger, etc. There are enchantment shrines in the dungeons to make them stronger (with a small but increasing percent chance to erase all of their stats!), and even an enchanter in town who will enchant your items for a fee (with double the percentage to erase stats as the shrines).
 
There's an item combiner in town too, with secret recipes to combine some items into other items. He can also combine gems, of which there are a lot. Say you have a few "cracked cold-ember" gems which give 3 ice damage if you put them in a weapon socket. Well, you can give two of them to the transmuter and get a "dull cold-ember" gem with 6 ice damage. This rather ends up leading to a hoarding of gems and a character with empty gem sockets though, because you don't want to use up the gems in hopes that you can get perfect gems. Since there are like 10 tiers of gems, this takes a long time to accomplish... and even when you get one, then you don't want to waste it on a sub-par piece of equipment!
 
There are NPCS (non-playable characters controlled by the computer) in town who will destroy a piece of equipment and give you the gems out of it. There's also a guy who will destroy the gem and leave you the piece of equipment, but often even if your character has found better equipment you will want to save the old piece for a future character by putting it in your shared stash chest.
 
The world itself is three-dimensional with a fixed camera. You can zoom the camera in and out with the mouse wheel, but you can't rotate it. You move by clicking on the ground, which took some getting used to because I typically prefer a WASD movement option when I play this type of game. The left mouse button attacks and the right mouse button executes a skill that you can assign to the key. You can also assign an alternate skill, so that when you hit the tab button it switches between them. The number buttons 1 through 0 act as hot keys that you can assign to other skills, potions, spells, etc.
 
Most of the other buttons are pretty standard as well. C to bring up your character pane, I for inventory, P for your pet, S for skills, etc. Pets are pretty nice in Torchlight, as they follow you around and can attack enemies. They also have their own inventory which you can fill up with goodies, and you can even click a button to send them back to town to automatically sell their inventory and bring you back the money. Pets can equip two rings and an amulet, as well as any two spells that you pick up along the way. This makes them pretty versatile and really helpful additions to your part since you're otherwise playing by yourself.
 
The game also has a little mini-game of sorts where you can fish at designated fishing holes. You catch various fish and then feed them to your pet to transform him temporarily (or permanently with the most rare fish) into another creature. This also fills up your pet's life and mana at the same time, so it's especially wonderful for boss fights to have different fish on hand to make your pet more useful. Otherwise, when your pet gets low health he runs around randomly away from the enemies and does nothing until he gets some health back. You can also fish up other items such as gems and boots, but they're much less common.
 
Matt Uelmen, who composed the music for Diablo, also composed original music for Torchlight and the results were spectacular. Sound effects are also good, with some pretty nice grunts and explosions. Different class skills are mostly varied as well, though there are a lot of passive skills that increase damage, armor, crit, etc. that are shared between classes.
 
You can't complete a review of Torchlight without mentioning TorchED and the modding capabilities. You see, the game is designed to be completely modable by players and there are a number of decent ones created. New maps, new enemies, new items, new skills, new character classes, you name it. Most of them were created using TorchED, the free mod tool that Runic released for creating game mods. It's mostly point and click and pretty easy to use. Some things like items are super easy while adding things like new classes is a lot more involved, but there's so much that's possible.
 
Torchlight has really low system requirements, including Windows XP or later, an 800MHz processor, 512MB of RAM, 400MB of hard drive space, and a DirectX-compatible 3D graphics card with at least 64MB of memory. There's even a checkbox to enable Netbook mode in the options, so even though this is a fun game that has decent looking graphics it will still run on some pretty low end hardware.

Overall Torchlight is a terrific game, though itemization does taper off at the end and it is a bit repetitive. The lack of multiplayer is probably the biggest down side, as it's a huge boon to this type of game. Still, certainly an above-average game and it's pretty cheap to pick up as well. If you catch it in time, go ahead and pre-order Torchlight II on Steam for $20 and get the free Torchlight download instead of purchasing it separately. If you miss the deal though, it's still worth buying on its own.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Tecmo Bowl (NES)




Rating: 2 out of 5
Pros: Actual player names and a fun two-player mode
Cons: No real gameplay balance. No injuries, penalties, fumbles or team names

Tecmo Bowl is an arcade game developed by Tecmo and ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1989. It was one of the first games to feature real names of NFL players, although it didn't use actual team names (teams were labeled by city, omitting the actual name). It's a game I remember fondly, staying at a friend's house and camping out in a pop-up camper while staying up all night playing Tecmo Bowl for hours on end.
 
Being an early NES-era game, Tecmo Bowl was nothing special to look at. It used a flat 2D plane with the computer on the right and the player on the left regardless of whether you were on offense or defense. Players were tiny little blobs of stick men, and were just barely detailed enough to tell that they were people -- but that was about all you could expect from the NES at that point, and they were plenty sufficient to play the game with. Sound effects were sparse and average, but the background music was annoying and repetitive. Mute for the win.
 
Tecmo Bowl featured only 12 teams: Indianapolis, Miami, Cleveland, Denver, Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco, Dallas, New York, Chicago and Minnesota. Some teams like Indianapolis or Dallas are poor to average, while Chicago or San Francisco make the game a breeze due to having some ridiculously players. Los Angeles had Bo Jackson as running back, and he could (quite literally) run circles around almost anyone. While this made for some hilarious plays like running from one end zone to the other and back again before scoring, it kind of cheapened the gameplay and made it nearly impossible to lose against the computer if you used Los Angeles. Similar situation with Lawrence Taylor in New York, who can block every single field goal and extra point attempt making an otherwise even game always come out in your favor.
 
Each team does have unique plays available to them, but the playbook only consists of 4 plays. Most teams have 2 running plays and 2 passing plays, and if the defence chooses the same play as the offense then it pretty much collapses the line and results in a loss of yards. That's a 25% chance of a loss of yards for the most part, though occasionally some of the better players can still scrape by. Bo Jackson for example can just start running backwards every single play, and when the defense collapses upon him just have him run a circle around them back the other direction and zigzag your way to the end zone for a touchdown.
 
It's a pretty cheesy game single player; it's usually either frustratingly difficult or frustratingly easy depending on which teams you're using. Playing 2 player mode with a friend is much better, but you have to make sure to either both pick good teams or both pick bad teams to avoid blowouts. That, or play the game so much you know the ins and outs of each team so you can figure out how to stop them. Like a game bug that leaves a linebacker unblocked on Bo Jackson's running play, which makes it easy mode for a human player to block Bo Jackson where the computer couldn't touch him for anything.
 
In single player mode you pick a team and the computer picks one, and if you win the computer picks another until you've beaten all the teams. You're given a short password to enter after each win so you can continue where you left off, but this is as close as the game comes to a season or franchise mode. There is a coach mode, but that just has you picking plays but not executing them. Not very fun, but it's there.
 
You can't get injured in this game, there are no penalties, you can't fumble the ball, you can't lateral; you can't even drop a pass (though you do get intercepted quite often if there is a defender anywhere close to your receiver). Occasionally you can break free of a tackle by mashing buttons, but that's about the extent of it. The gameplay left much to be desired and was rather disappointing, but it was the best there was on the NES at the time.
 
Since Tecmo Super Bowl came out though, there's no reason to play this instead any more. It's great for nostalgic value, but as a game Tecmo Super Bowl wipes the floor with Tecmo Bowl. It has actual team names, better gameplay, more plays, better graphics, a real season mode and stat tracking. It's the same game that we all loved and played to death, but improved upon in every noticeable way. I would have only recommended Tecmo Bowl back then for lack of anything better, but I can't really recommend it over Tecmo Super Bowl. Pass on this one and pick up the sequel.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Legend of Zelda (NES)




Rating: 5 out of 5
Pros: Fun, battery saves, good music, second playthrough when you finish it
Cons: Simple graphics, occasional lack of direction

The Legend of Zelda was developed and published by Nintendo for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The first time I ever saw the shining golden cartridge I knew I was in for a good time, and I was not disappointed. It was one of the earliest games we got for the Nintendo, and one I played a lot growing up. An action/adventure game at heart, it's often considered to be a precursor to the action RPG genre. The Legend of Zelda turned out to be a huge cash cow for Nintendo, spawning many sequels and selling millions of copies around the globe.
 
The land of Hyrule is invaded by an evil army, lead by Gannon, the prince of darkness. In the process he steals the Triforce of Power, one of three powerful triangle artifacts that contain mystical powers. Fearing that he would steal the Triforce of Wisdom as well, Princess Zelda split it into 8 fragments and hid them throughout the land. She then sent her trusted nursemaid Impa in search of a hero to challenge Gannon and retrieve the Triforce of Power. In The Legend of Zelda you play as Link, the young lad found by Impa and the protagonist of the game.
 
The Legend of Zelda is a simple game at heart. The map is made up of "rooms" that fill up one screen of the game. That's probably not the most accurate term to describe them since many of them are outside in the world, but it's the best I could come up with. Rooms may have openings leading up, down, left and/or right that will take you into the next room. Once you kill all of the enemies in a room they stay gone until you've moved a certain number of rooms away, in which case they respawn. You don't level up or anything, so the only benefit to killing enemies (aside from getting them out of your way so that they don't damage you) is to collect rupies (the game's currency) or bombs.
 
There are a few items you can spend rupies on such as an improved shield, a candle or some healing water, but mostly they're worthless. You can only accumulate up to 255 of them at a time, and any additional rupies you collect will disappear. The other major items to collect are heart containers. Since you start the game with only 3 hearts, it's really beneficial to collect more. You'll get one from each dungeon boss to increase the damage you can take, but there are also 5 heart containers hidden around the map in various places. Finding them may be tricky if you're not cheesing it up with an online walkthrough, but half the fun is in the search and you're bound to find some other secrets along the way.

The game is rather open and non-linear, to the point that sometimes you'll be wondering where to go next. There's no harm in exploring (in fact that's half the fun), but some type of indication as to where the next dungeon is located would be nice. Not that you have to do them in order for the most part (obviously a dungeon that requires a raft to get to would require obtaining the raft from a previous dungeon first), but it's a little easier to do so.
 
The whole game takes place in a 2D overhead view where you can only walk in the four cardinal directions (no diagonal movement). You stab your sword one square in front of you to destroy various enemies, or if you have full health you can shoot a projectile from your sword across the screen to make things easier. It's a pretty simple concept, but it's made more interesting by secret areas (by blowing up walls or burning bushes), small puzzles and a large world map to explore.
 
The graphics are extremely simple but effective, and you have to keep in mind that The Legend of Zelda was made in 1986. The landscape is varied; spattered with deserts, forests, mountains and waterfalls. There are a number of different enemies as well, and each behaves differently so that you actually feel like you're not fighting the same guy over and over but with a different graphic. One may shoot projectiles at you, another will dig underground and pop back up closer to you, one might split into two smaller enemies when defeated and yet another will grab you and drag you through the wall back to the beginning room of a dungeon.
 
Speaking of dungeons, there are nine in total. The first eight have pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom at the end of them, while the ninth houses the evil Gannon and the Triforce of Power. Each dungeon has a boss at the end guarding the Triforce fragment, and each of the bosses is totally different from one another. None of them are exceptionally hard, and are pretty easy in fact once you figure out the pattern that it uses. Nearly every dungeon also contains an item in it somewhere; such as a bow, boomerang, ladder, etc. There are about a dozen in total and they will help you kill enemies or travel around the world map easier, and most are outright required at one point or another to progress.
 
Sound effects like the flick, flick of your sword swinging or the poof sound from a bomb exploding are plain but adequate. The music, however, is wonderful! From the adventurous tunes on the world map to the ominous music when entering a dungeon, the music is a huge boon to the game and really helps set the pace. The opening title song in particular is so memorable that it pops into my head any time I think of any Zelda game.
 
The user interface is simple and easy to use. Your items are on their own screen which comes down from the top of the screen to replace the game window when you hit the start button. From there you can select any single item you want to assign to the B button, while the A button is always used for your sword. Press start again to get back to the game screen and continue playing. Also noteworthy is the fact that The Legend of Zelda was one of the earliest games I can remember to use a battery save feature, so you can create up to 3 separate games and save them to restart later. This is immensely better than entering in some long annoying series of letters and numbers for level selection like most of the early NES games, and multiple people can still play the game and have their progress saved.
 
The Legend of Zelda is a game iconic to the NES, and a game that was so good that it seemed ahead of it's time. Despite it's simplistic nature it has held up fairly well and still offers a fun experience today; this is one game that should be in every NES collection and I recommend you pick it up. As far as replay value, there are a number of secrets to discover during the game, but even after you beat it there is a second playthrough with harder enemies and relocated dungeons and items. This effectively doubles the length of the game and gives you a reason to keep playing after you finish it.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Tibia (PC)


Rating: 2 out of 5
Pros: No level cap, huge world map, constant updates
Cons: No sense of community, lots of botters, no sound, dated graphics

When I say Tibia is an oldschool MMORPG, I'm not exaggerating. Developed by CipSoft GmbH, Tibia has been online since very early in 1997. No, that's not a typo. It's undergone numerous revisions and updates since then, and received a lot of cosmetic overhauls and content updates -- but the core gameplay is still the same as it was all those years ago.
 
Tibia is actually free to play, and uses a subscription model where players can purchase a "premium account" to give them additional in-game benefits. This includes faster health and/or mana regeneration, character outfits, mounts, an astounding number of new areas to play, new cities, new spells, etc. The amount of regular content vs premium content is really lopsided, and while you can enjoy the game as a free account it does not compare to the game if you pay for the premium account instead. They recently introduced a way to buy premium "scrolls" for money and transfer them into the game, so you can at least get a premium account for in-game currency rather than cash if you really want -- though it's kind of expensive.
 
The first thing worth mentioning is that Tibia is a 2D RPG, and the graphics are similar to the old Ultima games (Ultima VI or Ultima VII). This means square tiles for everything, but the tops of them can stick up further to show perspective. There are multiple levels of depth and height, but the map clips the levels above and below you so that you can see whatever floor you happen to be on. If you go upstairs you can see the floor and walls where you're at but you can't see the floors above or below you (though you can see the area below you if it extends further than floor you're on).
 
These days there are some small animations, like twinkling orange specs at the tops of torches or tiled animations for different spells, but they aren't very complex nor are they very smooth. Characters and enemies still have what appear to be two-frame animations that just animate faster if you move faster. You can only walk in four directions with the arrow keys, though you can "push" yourself diagonally by dragging yourself with the mouse or using the number pad (this is much slower than walking in one of the cardinal directions). I really wish the game had WASD movement, though it would break the chat interface.
 
The actual game window takes up the top-left corner of the screen. The bottom of the screen is filled with a scrollable chat frame, and you can type whatever you want and hit enter to send it. You can scroll through the previous things and open up multiple tabs for different chat windows like public chat, NPCs, guild chat, private messages, etc. The right side of the screen has a user interface that consists of different blocks that can be minimized and maximized depending on what you want to be visible. This can include your health and mana, skills, inventory, equipment, VIP list (friend's list), containers on the ground next to you that you have open, corpses you're searching for loot, etc. It's nice that you can collapse some of these (like the skill pane) so that you don't have them eating up your screen real estate all the time, but you can look at them any time you want.
 
As for sound... Tibia has none. No ominous background music, no swords clanging or fireballs roaring, no monsters taunting you, no clicks or beeps for interface interaction. No sound what-so-ever. This is one of the few areas that I'm amazed they haven't expanded to in all the years the game has been around. Personally I would love at least some basic roars and clangs, but for whatever reason they have decided to pass on the option.
 
Tibia is a pretty open-ended game, but it's also a huge grind-fest. You start out on an island, which is a sort of training area called Rookgaard. There you learn how to play the game and hone your skills before setting off for the mainland. You fight some of the weaker enemies in the game, interact with some NPCs, do some quests and get a general feel for the game. The map itself is decent sized, and when I originally reached the mainland in the game I got lost a number of times trying to find my way around.
 
There are some varied tilesets for different landscapes, with lots of oceans and rivers around, deserts, jungles, snow and ice, caves and mountains. There are also over a dozen different sprawling towns in the game spread around the map, and each of them has a different theme. The town of Ankrahmun for example lies in the desert, and the whole town looks like it is made of sandstone and the buildings are in the shape of pyramids. The town of Port Hope is in the jungle, and most of the town is built up on stilts with wooden rope bridges connecting buildings that are made of wooden planks. I really appreciate the amount of variety in the looks of the game, and it really helps to relieve the sting of having no sound at all.
 
Leveling up in Tibia takes a long time, and the higher you get the longer it takes. There is no level cap; you can level up as high as you want. Every level gives you additional health, mana and walking speed. Different classes gain different amounts of health and mana, but the speed is constant. At level 1 you practically crawl around the map, but wait until a level 300+ runs by you; he pretty much just glitches across the screen in big spurts because he's so fast.
 
As for your other skills, Tibia doesn't have the traditional strength, dexterity, intelligence, etc. that you find in many RPGs. Instead Tibia uses a skill system, where your skills get higher as you use them more often. Swing that sword enough and your sword skill will go up a level; cast enough spells and your magic level will go up; catch enough fish and your fishing skill will go up. Skills include axe fighting, sword fighting, club fighting, fist fighting (really worthless in this game), magic level, distance fighting, shielding and fishing.
 
Initially training your skills (leveling them up) is pretty easy, and they go up quite nicely while you're grinding away killing enemies anyway. After a while it really starts to slow down, and you'll find yourself training your skills instead of killing enemies just so you can more efficiently kill them later. This usually involves taking a really weak weapon and hitting some type of enemy that heals itself periodically (like a ghoul or monk) while at the same time having a couple of weak creatures like rats or snakes hit you. The weak weapon insures that you don't kill the creature so you can hit it many times and raise your attacking skill, and the weak creatures hitting you raise your shielding skill in the process. It starts taking hundreds of hours of efficient training just to raise one skill point. A knight is the class that raises melee skills the fastest, and with 99 sword fighting you will still have to hit something with a sword weapon nearly a quarter of a million times to raise that skill up one more point -- and this will take you well over 100 hours of constant training.
 
There are four classes in Tibia: the knight, the paladin, the sorcerer and the druid. The knight can wear some of the heavier armors in the game and wield the best melee weapons. His melee and shielding skills go up fast but his magic level and distance skills go up really slowly. He gains 15 health per level but only 5 mana, and is the de facto tank class in the game. At high levels he has a lot of health and does moderate damage, and this is the class I originally started the game with. You end up grinding up a storm killing weak to moderate enemies constantly to level, and it's really a boring endeavor.
 
Some time ago they introduced "shared experience" into Tibia, and this really helped to mitigate the boring prospect of playing a knight so it's not so bad these days as it was for me. I used to play with a friend who was a paladin, and I stood there tanking strong monsters with my shield and high health. We got some loot and made a little money, but over a year of tanking all these enemies I leveled up from about level 60 to 65. During that same time my friend leveled up from about 45 to over 100. This was because he got nearly all of the experience for killing the enemies while I mostly just took damage from them. Thank goodness those days are over.
 
The paladin is not what you are expecting, as it is the ranged class in Tibia for some reason. It still has access to many holy spells and can raise shielding pretty quick, but it raises the distance fighting really fast and magic level at a medium pace. It gains 10 health per level and 15 mana and is widely considered to be one of the most versatile and well-rounded classes in the game. Since it has a decent health pool, mana pool, does good physical damage and can use a moderate amount of magic too, this is a well-rounded character that's probably your best choice to start out with.
 
Sorcerers and druids are pretty similar in the fact that they both have a ton of mana but very little health. They both get a whopping 30 mana per level, but only 5 health. They both cast a lot of the same spells, both raise magic levels at a good pace and everything else slowly. They differ in a few spells, but those spells are what actually makes them who they are. Every class has some sort of spell to heal itself, but druids actually get two additional spells: heal friend, and mass healing. This allows them to heal another person by name and heal everyone within a few squares all around them. They also specialize in ice and earth magic. Sorcerers get more attack spells instead of healing, and they specialize in fire and energy magic.
 
Sorcerers and druids (and paladins to an extent) can also create "runes", which are basically spells stored in stones. These can be used later by any class that has the required magic level to unleash the spells without spending mana. This is the main weapon in a mage's arsenal, and you end up spending a lot of time and mana creating them so that you can hunt enemies with them later. You can also buy these from NPC shops, but it's not very cost-effective to do so and you're better off making them yourself or buying commonly used runes from other players.
 
All classes can become "promoted" after level 20 at the cost of some gold. This gives them faster health and/or mana regeneration and the ability to use some new spells and abilities, as well as giving them a new title. A knight becomes an elite knight, a paladin becomes a royal paladin, a druid becomes an elder druid and a sorcerer becomes a master sorcerer. This only applies to premium accounts, and when your premium account expires you lose your promotion and continue playing as an unpromoted character until you purchase more premium time, at which point your previous promotion kicks back in.
 
There are a wide variety of enemies in Tibia. At first you'll mostly kill simple enemies like rats and spiders; then step up to orcs, minotaurs and dwarfs; then to cyclops and demon skeletons. Eventually you'll be hunting vampires, dragons, mages and ancient robots. You'll come across massive demons, spell-slinging warlocks, turtles, sea serpents and giant spiders -- there are a good number of different enemies to tangle with.
 
There are only a couple dozen of each type of weapon or armor in the game, and you can't really enchant them or place gems in them or anything special to improve them. This means for much of the game you'll be using the same equipment, with only a small upgrade here and there. Some of the lower stuff you can buy from NPC shops, but most of it you have to find rarely in a strong monster or buy from another player who has found it. There are also a spattering of quests here and there, some of which can net you some decent rewards, but unlike most modern RPGs many of the quests are tough. You won't find many "go out and kill 10 skeletons and bring me their bones" quests in Tibia.
 
What offsets some of the ease of having no level cap is the fact that Tibia has a rather harsh death penalty. If you die, you always lose some experience and some percentage of your skill progress. You also have a chance to drop some of your items. There are some blessings you can travel around the map and acquire, and while they do cost money they lower the percentage of everything that you lose. If you have all five blessings you won't drop any equipment and will lose only a small percentage of your skills and experience.
 
CIP updates the game frequently as well. It receives minor updates here and there, but twice a year they have major updates; one in the summer and one around Christmas. These major usually add new items, creatures, towns, hunting areas, outfits, etc. to the game. They also nearly always update at least some of the graphics, so over the years tibia has become pretty polished despite it's simplicity. It's nice to see such an old game still being given attention.
 
Years ago I played this game a lot, mostly because it was a simple game that worked on dial-up internet, but these days I don't play so much. I get in the mood to play it occasionally, so I do for a few days, but it doesn't hold my interest so much anymore. Over the years a lot of the player base has changed, and now well over half the players don't speak English at all. There are also a multitude of cheating "bot" characters who run programs that make them automatically run around killing enemies, leveling up, collecting loot, etc. This clogs up so many of the good hunting areas that sometimes it's hard to find somewhere to kill things, especially as a free account where you don't have as many options to start with.
 
CIP claims that they're against all the cheaters and botters, but they've really failed hard at stopping them or even slowing them down. Between the lack of real players as opposed to botters, and the fact that even most of the real players you do find can't speak English, Tibia has lost much of it's sense of community that it once had. A couple of years ago English was the official language and you "had" to speak English at least in public channels for that reason. They seem like they just don't care so much today. With the increased popularity of RPGs and MMORPGs, Tibia is just too dated to compete so they had to relax some of their rules to keep people playing. Now around a quarter of the player base is from Brazil, another quarter is from Poland, a pile from Mexico and another pile from Sweden and then it finally gets to the United States population.
 
Tibia is still a decent game that still has potential, but unless they do something drastic to restore the community feeling that it used to have and get rid of the botters I cannot recommend the game. Walking around aimlessly for an hour looking for a place to kill some enemies isn't fun, especially when you can't find anyone who speaks your language to kill time with. Coupled with the fact that when you're in town your screen is constantly spammed with bots who are trying to sell gold, it's not a great experience anymore. To top it all off, the game was $5/month once upon a time; now it's about $12/month. For that price I could play any number of better games like Warhammer Online or World of Warcraft.

Pass on this one unless they do some serious overhauling.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Fruit Ninja (Android)


Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Polished gameplay with achievements and unlockables
Cons: There's really not much to this simple game

Fruit Ninja is a simple little game from Halfbrick Studios for Android 2.1+ and iOS devices. Actually, simple is probably an understatement; the entire core of the gameplay consists of swiping your finger across the screen to chop fruit in half. However, for the $1.22 price tag ($0.99 for iOS) it offers some moderately fun casual gameplay that you can get through in short periods of time while you're out and about away from your primary gaming systems.
 
Basically fruit flies up from the bottom of the screen, does a little arc and then falls back off. You are tasked with slicing it out of the air before it falls again. There are three gameplay modes: Classic, Arcade and Zen. Classic mode is usually the longest lasting, as you can continue playing indefinitely as long as you have lives remaining (unless you slice a bomb, then it's game over). You start out with three lives, and you lose one each time a piece of fruit falls off the bottom of the screen. You can obtain an extra life for ever 100 points though, so missing a piece of fruit here or there isn't usually a deal breaker.
 
Arcade mode lets you play for exactly one minute, and the goal is to slice as much fruit as possible while avoiding bombs again. In Arcade mode you have some bonus banana fruit that appear to help you occasionally by either slowing down time, making a fruit frenzy (lots of fruit on the screen for easy points) or doubling your points for a while. Zen mode is similar to Arcade, except that you are given a minute and a half but there are no bananas or bombs to deal with. This makes it exceptionally easy to swipe your finger back and forth rapidly near the bottom of the screen and not miss any fruit -- though you do get a few less points this way because it's harder to get combos (multiple fruit in one swipe). If you let a pile of fruit get on the screen at once and then swipe it, the combos will net you a lot more points overall.
 
Other than that there isn't much to the game. There are a few unlockables like different colored blades for swiping with and different background images, as well as achievements and worldwide leaderboards. Some of the unlockables are easy, like slicing 250 watermelons in classic mode or getting a combo with a strawberry 40 times. Others are a little tougher, like getting a combo in Zen mode after the timer stops or cutting 125 fruit without missing in classic mode.
 
The graphics are rather simple, but they are shiny and sleek. There really isn't much in the way of animation aside from the spinning pieces of fruit, but some of the effects like the swipe and the splatter when you slice fruit are rather nice. The game has a polished look to it, and that's especially important when you're dealing with simple games. The sound effects are about what you would expect from swipes and splatters, and the music is surprisingly decent even though it does get repetitive.
 
The controls for the game are the same as for the menus; just swipe the fruit icons. It's pretty responsive on my Motorola DROID 4 and I haven't noticed any stuttering or slow down. A pretty decent game overall, I'm giving Fruit Ninja four stars and recommending it to anyone who likes casual puzzle-type games that are a little more involved and faster paced. If you're not sure, grab the add-supported Fruit Ninja Free; it's the same exact game with all the levels and unlockables intact. It just displays advertisements after each game, which is not obtrusive at all to the gameplay.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Final Fantasy Tactics (PSX)


Rating: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great story, diverse cast of characters, many different ways to play
Cons: Cutscenes can be really slow, especially between chapters

Final Fantasy Tactics was developed by Square and released in early 1998 for the Sony PlayStation video game console. It was among the first strategy/tactical RPGs that I had ever played and soon became one of my favorite games for the PlayStation. It had all the flair and depth of a Final Fantasy title combined with the strategic gameplay of a game like Fire Emblem or Shining Force.
 
[Story]
 
Soon after the Fifty Year War with one of it's neighbors, the Kingdom of Ivalice is thrust into another war after the death of it's king. This new war, the Lion War, is a civil war that revolves around who should be the heir to the kingdom. The king had two children, Princess Ovelia and an infant son named Prince Orinas -- and since the prince was but an infant, whoever was appointed his guardian would rule in his stead. The ambitions and manipulations of the Queen's brother Prince Larg the White Lion, and the King's cousin Prince Goltana the Black Lion lead to what is later termed The Lion War.
 
The story is pretty deep and complicated, but that's the overriding plot arc. House Beoulve has pretty high standing in the realm due to their contributions in the Fifty Year War, and you take on the roll of the youngest brother Ramza Beoulve for the game. Not only does he have to deal with the two lions throwing the world into chaos with yet another war, but the Glabados Church with its secret agenda as well to complicate things. The story is wonderful and well fleshed out -- it contains many twists and turns, intrigue and betrayal, but there's so much to it that at times it gets a little hard to follow.
 
[Gameplay]
 
The main world is a flat map with locations that work similar to the world map in Super Mario Bros 3, but you start out with only a couple of these locations visible with a line connecting them. Moving onto the next open location usually starts a battle (or occasionally a cut scene) and when you finish that battle it unlocks an additional location or series of locations to advance the story. After the initial battle the dots representing the different locations change colors so that you know you're finished with that area, a blue dot for a town/castle and a green dot for a field location.
 
You can't actually enter any of the locations except during battles, but when you're at a town or castle you can bring up a menu to interact with various things inside. Buying or selling equipment, hiring random soldiers, visiting the pub to listen to rumors or take on jobs, etc. Taking on jobs is a nice way to get backup characters some experience as you'll have to play without whatever characters you send for the number of days that the job lasts. In Final Fantasy Tactics one day is goes by for every dot you move on the world map.
 
Green dots are just extra stops after you complete the initial battle, but they do have a chance to spawn a random battle at that location. Unlike story battles in which you fight the same group of enemies at the same level with the same equipment every time, random battles scale to your level and have a random assortment of enemies in them. So if you decide to level up a bit to make a certain story battle easier, you still may find yourself having a tough time with some of the random battles just because the enemies may be much closer to your own level and have more abilities to use.
 
During battles the game switches to a 3D-looking view where the map is made up of isometric, diamond-shaped blocks. The maps are relatively small, and you get to take a party of (usually) five characters into battle against the enemies. Sometimes you'll have "Guest" characters in your party, who are characters tagging along for a portion of the story line. They are completely controlled by artificial intelligence, but often lower the number of characters you're allowed to bring into battle so that you're sitting at five total. The enemies may number anywhere from two or three up to over a dozen. Characters and enemies both move around the blocks based on their move and jump stats, with the move referring to how many blocks you can move in any direction and jump referring to how many blocks you can climb vertically.
 
Some maps are pretty flat and jump is useless, but other maps are really vertical, to the point of obstructing the view of the camera and being annoying. Thankfully you can rotate the camera to four fixed positions, one at each point of the diamond-shaped blocks, but sometimes you just can't see very well. R1 and L1 rotate the camera around, R2 slightly changes the camera angle (up and down to two preset heights), and L2 zooms in and out of the map a little bit.
 
There are probably 20 different enemy types ranging from different classes of humans, to Chocobos, skeletons and dragons. Most of the monster type enemies have different versions as well, who have increased power and a different name but look exactly the same except for a color palette swap. There are also a number of boss encounters during the story battles, and these can range in difficulty greatly. If you've leveled up a bit and are just there to win the battle as soon as possible they are mostly easy enough. On the other hand, if you're not too leveled up and you wish to steal something in particular from a boss you may find yourself frustrated beyond belief. (The battle with Marquis Elmdor comes to mind here, where he has a full set of unique Genji Gear to steal.)
 
Final Fantasy Tactics is a turn-based tactical RPG, and battles use a system based on Charge Time (CT). Characters fill up a CT bar at a rate equal to that character's speed, and when it reaches 100 that character gets it's Active Turn (AT). Speed will vary depending on the character's current class/job and what equipment he has on, so you may have one character that gets a couple of turns before another character gets one. Charge time can be viewed easily because it fills up a third bar directly under the character's health and mana bars.
 
A character's spells and abilities have their own seperate speeds as well, so if you're casting a higher level spell like Cure 4, Meteor or many of the summoning spells it will likely take multiple turns before it gets executed. You have to be careful casting spells that hit an area on the ground, because if it has a long CT the enemy you cast it on may have moved out of the way before it ever gets cast. In some cases where you have a specific enemy targeted so he can't escape, he may walk over and stand beside you so that you get hit with your own spell when it hits him -- making CT management really important.
 
You gain experience and job points when you perform actions in battle. At the end of each battle you get some money, and usually some random bonus items as well. These bonus items can range from a small amount of money, to potions or elixirs or even pieces of equipment. Also, when any character or enemy dies they get a timer that counts down as their normal turn would have passed. It starts at 3 and when turn 0 passes, that character's body disappears forever (and can no longer be revived, so you can permanently lose characters). When it disappears it leaves behind either a crystal or a treasure chest. If you step on the crystal you can restore your health and mana, or sometimes gain some abilities that the dead character had (if it was a human). The treasure chest will usually give you a piece of equipment that the dead character had equipped, or else an item like a potion or a phoenix down.
 
[Characters]

Aside from Ramza, there are a number of other named characters you can recruit throughout the game. Cid makes an appearance like he does in just about every Final Fantasy title, but in Final Fantasy Tactics he's known as T.G. Cid or "Thunder God" Cid and is of the class Holy Swordsman. The name is fitting, because when you get him during the storyline he can almost single-handedly win battles for you for a while.
 
Ramza, Cid, a Chocobo, and 5 more special named characters make up your main cast. To further that total there are 5 hidden characters in the game, including a well-loved hero from a previous Final Fantasy installment. In addition, you can hire random characters in most towns if you need to fill your ranks until you receive all of the named characters throughout the story, or to train especially for specific roles you may need filled.
 
You can even recruit monsters into your ranks, and those monsters will lay eggs to give you even more monsters. Sometimes it gets excessive and you have start dismissing monsters as they start multiplying like rabbits. Sometimes enemies will lay eggs of a different tier monster as well (the one that looks the same but with a color swap), like a Behemoth laying a Behemoth King egg or a Chocobo laying a Red Chocobo egg for example.
 
Any of the human characters can switch between a number of different classes, or jobs as they're called here. The total list of jobs includes Squire, Chemist, Knight, Archer, White Mage, Black Mage, Monk, Thief, Oracle, Time Mage, Geomancer, Dragoon, Mediator, Summoner, Samurai, Ninja, Calculator, Dancer, Bard and Mime. It's a pretty extensive list, but you unlock them over the course of the game by leveling up earlier jobs.
 
For example, when you level up the Squire job class to level 2 you unlock the Archer and Knight jobs. Leveling Archer to 2 gets you a thief, and Knight to 2 gets you a Monk. A level 3 Monk gets you a Geomancer, and then the fun starts. If you take the Geomancer to level 2, the Archer to level 3 and the Thief to level 4 (yes, three separate jobs that each have prerequisites) then you finally unlock the Ninja job. If that sounds like a lot of leveling to unlock, just wait until you want to try out the Calculator or the Mime!
 
The special named characters that join your party each have an additional job that takes the place of Squire in their list of jobs. These jobs have different abilities, some of which are so good that the character is irreplaceable (like T.G. Cid), some situationally useful against certain enemy types (like Meliadoul), and some downright useless to the point of making you never want to use that character (Malak). These special jobs make using random characters pointless once you have 5 named characters.
 
As you accumulate job points you can learn different abilities specific to whatever job the character is at the time. A chemist for example can spend 30 job points to learn how to use potions. 90 job points can teach them to use a phoenix down, and a whopping 900 job points to learn to use elixirs. When you spend the points to learn a new spell or ability they are gone, and you must accumulate more to learn more abilities. Once you've learned every ability for a job, that job becomes mastered and has a star by the name in the job selection screen so that you know there's nothing else to learn there.
 
Different jobs also have innate abilities that are always active as long as the character is doing that job. A chemist for example can always throw items like potions or ethers a certain number of squares to hit an ally who's not standing near them, but if you want to do that with another class you must spend 350 job points to learn the "Throw Items" support ability. A ninja can inherently equip a weapon in each hand, a white mage can always use white magic, etc.
 
Each character has two stats called Brave and Faith that effect different abilities in different ways. High faith improves the damage that character does with magical attacks, but it also increases the amount of damage they receive from magical attacks. You would think that characters you use as front-line melee fighters would be best kept at a low faith level, but since low faith also makes cure spells heal for smaller amounts, that might not always be the case if you heal with spells instead of items very often.
 
Brave affects things such as a Monk's attack power, your counter-attack rate if you have "Counter" learned and equipped, etc. One of my favorite abilities is "Blade Grasp", which gives you an evasion rate that's dependant on your Brave level. If you've got 95 brave, then you'll evade 95% of melee attacks used against you. Talk about powerful! Conversely, really low brave helps you discover rare items if you're using the Chemist's "Move Find Item" ability so it's nice to keep one character with low brave (with 70 brave you would have a 70% chance to find the rare item and a 30% chance to find the common item on a block that has a hidden item when you step on it). That's the only time I'm aware of that low brave is more useful than high brave.
 
You can raise and lower brave and faith during battle with certain abilities, and for every 5 points the stat goes up during a battle it goes up 1 point permanently. Use caution however, because if a character's permanent brave level drops to 5 he will leave your party forever because he's a coward, and if the permanent faith gets up to 95 they will leave forever to pursue a life devoted to religion.
 
For even more complexity each character also has a Zodiac sign, and different Zodiac signs have different compatibility with other signs. If your sign and the sign of your enemy are compatible you will have a higher chance to hit them, charm them, steal from them, etc. If the enemy is of the opposite sex it increases the chances even more. If the signs are incompatible, the sex is the same and the enemy is using a good shield you may find yourself with a ridiculously low chance to do much to them. In that case you're usually better off to walk away and move another character over to deal with that enemy.
 
There are a decent number of items available in the game as well, including a number of different consumables to cure various status ailments and a wide variety of weapons and armor. Not only that, but there are different types of equipment for the different classes. Most jobs have their own specific types of weapons; ninja swords, katanas, knight swords, harps, daggers, bows, maces, etc. There are more than a dozen different swords, along with another handful of knight swords, a dozen shields, etc. There are also a couple of different types of armor and helmets, like light armor, heavy armor and robes for different classes to equip.
 
There are many accessories too, like feather boots to cast float on your character permenantly or an angel ring so the character has permenant reraise. Cloaks to raise your evasion rate or bracelets to protect against various status ailments. In addition, there are a few items such as the ribbon and some perfumes that can only be equipped by female characters
 
[Presentation]
 
While the graphics aren't anything spectacular, they are really detailed. The random generic soldiers all look similar, females with one sprite and males with another, but they have a different sprite for each of the different jobs that they can become which means a lot of variety anyway. On top of that, each of the special named characters looks unique and nothing like anyone else, but the downside to this is that they don't change their appearance when they change jobs. I think the characters look much, much better and are far more detailed than the characters in the other PlayStation era Final Fantasy games.
 
The world map looks nice, but there's really nothing to it because it's just a flat plane with dots and lines on it. The battles look really good though, with nice textures on every block. Different height elevations gradually climb with angles and inclines, so it's not like a world made entirely of Legos or anything. The settings and locations really look nice, and there's a good variety to them. One level you may be on a wavy desert with cliffs and cacti, and the next you may be near a giant waterfall with rocky cliff faces and a wooden bridge, and then the next you may be in a town with multiple buildings and roads where you must fight your way across the roof tops to defeat your enemy.
 
The sound effects are pretty standard but they work well, but the music is really outstanding. We get a nice mixture of dark and brooding tones to make boss fights seem more harrowing, slower melodic music to enhance particularly emotional cut scenes and faster enthusiastic pieces during random battles on the map. The music really adds to the atmosphere and does nothing but enhance the game. The only piece that I really got tired of was the piece that plays at the start of every battle while you choose which characters to fight with. After about the hundredth time you listen to that same piece at the start of every single battle you really start wishing there were 2 or 3 different tunes that it cycled between for some variety.
 
The cutscenes are the one bit of negative. They look real nice and are rendered using the game engine, but they go really slowly. Even worse are the screens of text between chapters that tell more of the story... these scenes go r... e... a... l... l... y... slow! To top it all off, they can't even be skipped which is a huge bummer. After playing through the game a couple of times, I really don't need to be forced to sit through one screen for 5 minutes as it slowly displays four lines of text. I usually end up taking the time during those scenes to take a break and use the bathroom, grab a drink, etc. Aside from those minor negatives however, the presentation of the game is exceptional.
 
[Conclusion]
 
Final Fantasy Tactics is one of my favorite PlayStation era games, and probably my favorite tactical RPG of all time. It's one of the first games I ever bought for the PlayStation, and I've actually picked up 3 different copies over the years as the first ones got scratched up or lost by my younger brothers.
 
There are a whole lot of positives: a good number of enemies, a good amount of different equipment and tons of customizability on how you want to play. There is a wide cast of unique characters with their own reasons for fighting and their own unique skills that they bring to bear. The grand storyline is deep and involved, and the style of the game really brings it all together into an epic saga that shouldn't be missed.
 
If you can't pick up the PlayStation version of the game, you can still grab Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions for the PlayStation Portable (PSP) or the iPad/iPhone. Supposedly it's really similar, but with additional jobs, items, characters and cutscenes (now with voiceovers). In one form or another, this is one game that should appeal to a large variety of people and everyone should at least look into.
 
There's so much more I could say about this game, but you really have to play it to truly appreciate it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Terraria (PC)


Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Lots of enemies, multiple bosses, good itemization
Cons: No more updates; end-game could use some fleshing out

Terraria is a wonderful little game from Re-Logic who's core gameplay resembles Minecraft in many ways. It contains exploration, combat, mining and building with blocks, but the main seperator from Minecraft is the fact that Terraria is a two-dimensional game where Minecraft makes use of 3D. Having played a lot of Minecraft, I just couldn't get into Terraria; it seemed like a watered down 2D version of a game I already liked. I didn't even open Terraria again for a few months, until my brother was playing it one day and I logged on to play with him.
 
Well, it turns out I was only half right and I actually rather like the game. Terraria seems to focus more on killing various bosses, exploring the map and moving NPCs into your shelter area, where Minecraft seems focused more on building crazy contraptions. One thing I didn't like about Minecraft was the fact that there was really only one boss creature, and Terraria has multiple bosses that can be summoned to kill over and over again.
 
In Minecraft the exploration and fighting is pretty much pointless after you beat the only boss, and all that's left is to build. Terraria kind of has the opposite problem, in that you can keep summoning bosses and working on getting the rare materials for the best gear in the game -- but once you have it, there's really not much left to do. You can't build crazy machines and contraptions to anywhere near the same degree you can in Minecraft, so your left playing player-vs-player games online or starting a new world and playing over again. Even then, you carry all of your equipment and everything in your inventory with you to new worlds so unless you drop it all in a chest beforehand there's really not much point to that either.
 
Still, it's a fun game while it lasts. You have multiple tiers of weapons, helmets, armors, leg pieces and scores of various accessories that you can find or forge at a handful of different crafting stations. Materials as basic as wood, stone and copper to collect as well as rare ones such as diamonds or adamantite. Fusing various pieces of equipment together to form new ones, building housing areas for NPCs to move into so you can buy various goods from them. NPCs move in after certain criteria are met, for example if you rescue them from the dungeon, discovered a certain item or have a certain boss defeated.
 
You can manufacture various picks, drills, saws and hammers to gather resources from around the world. In the process you can explore different areas of the map from forests and deserts to oceans and jungles. Build your little blocks up into the sky and you can come upon floating islands, or dig through them into the bowels of the earth to come upon a hellish area filled with lava. The whole world is presented in a 2D side-view, similar to Mario but with smaller blocks (your character is 2 blocks wide and 3 blocks tall, for example).
 
The graphics themselves aren't anything special, but that's the art direction of the game. They would have looked great on the NES, and having grown up in that era they have a certain nostalgic value that I like. Equipping different weapons and armor at least changes your character sprite, which I always like because it gives you a visual representation of your accomplishments when you get new equipment. There are a good number of different enemies and they're fairly distinct. You've got slow moving zombies, jumping slimes, flying eyeballs and tunneling worms. Enemies that shoot magical spells or projectiles at you, and even rare enemies that are unique and drop cosmetic items to change your appearance (you have an equipment slot for each piece of armor, as well as a social slot just for looks).
 
The background music is pretty good and there's a bit of variety to it, having somewhere around a dozen different tracks that play in different situations. The first sound you hear will be a happy and playful tune in the starting forest area during the day time. There's a serene track that plays during the night, some slow dark music that plays in the dungeon, as well as some other some faster more aggressive tunes that play during boss battles. System requirements include Windows 7/Vista/XP, a 1.6 GHz processor, 512 MB of RAM, 200 MB of hard drive space, a 128 MB video card that supports shader model 1.1 and DirectX 9.0c or greater.
 
Much of the fun I get from Terraria is from playing with friends, and this can be done over the internet or over the LAN. You can load up a character and play it in single-player and multi-player games complete with all of its equipment, as well as any items inside a Safe or Piggy Bank in the game-world (these two items act like a shared-stash between worlds and can only be accessed by the character who placed them). You can start a multi-player game of Terraria from within the game client itself, or you can download a small server application from the website and leave it running. I wish there were a Linux server application so that I could leave it running on my dedicated server so it would be online 24/7, but since the server application is Windows only I only use it to play over the LAN.
 
Terraria is a pretty fun game, though it does get a little boring after you've forged the best weapons and armor and there's little left to do. At that point, you can enable PvP and fight with your friends online or just repeat the same content over and over again. Personally I would just set the game aside for a while and then restart a whole new game from scratch in the future. You could arguably wait for an update from Re-Logic and then restart the game, but the developer stated in February that he's no longer going to be updating the game (though the Steam page still said "Free Content Updates", which is more than a little misleading since it's been about 4 months.
 
You can easily switch between a melee character, a ranged character or a magic user with a simple swap of armor and accessories. This means there's relatively little replay value in experimenting with the different ways you can play your character. There are no stat points or skill trees either, so all of your customization comes from the armor and accessories you equip. This is nice because it allows you to play your character however you feel like without a complete restart, however the replay value suffers because of it. The PvP does help, but there's only so many times you can kill your friends (or die to them) before you get bored. This would be a 5 star game if there were more building options like Minecraft, or something (anything at all) to keep the game interesting at the end.
 
I do recommend Terraria, and it's worth of a 4 star rating. At $10 it's not that expensive, and you can pick up a 4-pack on Steam for $30 if you have some friends you want to play with. It's really fun until you've done everything, and then it's still mildly fun for a while after that. Too bad there will be no updates in the future to improve things further or add more content for late in the game.